Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Unbelievers: Ministers Who Conclude There Is No God

The Boston Globe published a disconcerting feature article on Sunday April 11 entitled “The Unbelievers: What happens when a minister decides there’s no God.” The article is based on a study conducted by Professor Daniel Dennett of Tufts University that summarizes the content of interviews he conducted in depth with a number of ministers who over the years found that they have lost their faith in god and yet who continue to serve as ministers of churches because they are “trapped” in a profession that they do not know how to gracefully remove themselves from. In many cases these ministers are also caught in a situation in which they do not know how to break the news to family, friends and parishioners. Someone described the situation of these ministers as similar to being a closeted gay, unsure how they will be accepted once they come out of the church closet and conflicted about remaining in the ministry (as many do) or how they will support themselves if they have to give up their vocation as a result of their unbelief.

This study resonates with me because to some extent it is my story also, a story that I have told in some detail on my Christian Humanist website. Professor Dennett calls himself an atheist, but I prefer the term non-theist, because it is less confrontational and softer. I do not see any particular reason to be combative on the issue of belief in god or about my other beliefs and I do not want to provoke traditional believers. The question of the existence or reality of god does not interest me or seem worth the trouble to argue about any more than I am interested in arguing about whether tooth fairies or unicorns exist. I have just lost interest in god and do not find that term helpful, necessary or meaningful.

On the other hand, I believe that an ethical system is necessary. I find there is a great deal of value in Christian ethical beliefs and in the teachings of Jesus and I choose to base my ethical choices and priorities on those teachings. Therefore while I am a Humanist in that I value humanity and the humanities (and like many humanists, I do not believe in deities), I am a Christian in that I choose to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus. There are quite a few of us who identify ourselves as Christian Humanists, some who believe in god, some who do not.

Professor Dennett is right, however, when he observes the difficulty that a minister or priest encounters when they realize that faith has quietly left them and they must figure out how to navigate their way through some treacherous waters as they try to work out the implications for them, for their family and friends, and for their church. Over the past two years since I set up my website I have been contacted by a number of ministers who are struggling with the issue of faith, belief and vocation. The crisis of faith is sometimes so difficult that it results in the breakup of marriages, conflicts with families, and private despair for those who want desperately to believe, feel the loss of faith as a great loss in their life, but know that they cannot go back again.

Dennett summarizes his study this way:
"What emerges is a portrait of men (the one woman interviewed backed out at the last minute) grappling earnestly and incisively with the sort of theological quandaries familiar to anyone who has studied and doubted Christian doctrine. Just as strong, though, is the sense of secrecy and evasion that pervades their lives: having to hide their lack of belief from parishioners, friends, and even family members. Some spoke of feeling trapped: questioning their fitness for the pulpit but unable to leave because of a mix of personal, cultural, and even financial reasons.”
The Boston Globe allows reader comments on most of its news and commentary articles. This is the sort of article that attracts comments and as I slogged my way through the many hostile, angry and mean-spirited comments I was intrigued by a few of the more perceptive and interesting comments.

One comment observed cynically that “perhaps Mr. Bennett is on to something, that certain seminaries are in reality teaching 'anti-theology.'” Perhaps in some sense that observation has an element of truth to it, not because seminaries set out to undermine faith and not because they are deliberately engaged in false teaching, but because they have the mission of education in the broad sense of what that means (as compared to indoctrination, which is what happens in some seminaries).

Unfortunately some young theological students have the expectation that a theological education will resolve their doubts about matters of faith, but it rarely does, and as they learn more about the basis of faith, the biblical books and their background, various approaches to theology, philosophical issues surrounding faith, and the integration of theological knowledge with the world of knowledge, they discover that their doubts have increased rather than receded. That was certainly true in my case—I went to theological seminary with an undergraduate major in religion and I found that as my knowledge increased so did my doubts, and I came out of theological school with another graduate degree and a terminal case of agnosticism.

I have run into several variations on that theme from people who have contacted me through my website, most frequently suggesting that higher education is the source of the problem of the loss of faith and that as students are more exposed to liberal and atheistic college professors their innocent faith can be seriously damaged. The fear of losing faith (sometimes rationalized as a way of strengthening their faith) is a factor for students who attend conservative religious colleges and bible colleges, which tend to insulate students from confronting issues in science and philosophy that most of us expect students to be exposed to while in college as part of their educational growth toward intellectual maturity.

Here are some of the comments posted by Globe readers. It is apparent that readers were interested in loss of religious faith among their contemporaries generally, not just among the professional clergy, so the conversation begins to shift as more people comment.

"Mr. Dennett clearly has an agenda. His attempt to characterize his work as a study is fairly transparent. His self-serving drivel is an attempt to undermine religion and to coax those who may be weak and/or vulnerable to his position - kind of like gathering his own flock. And using others to do it for him is pure cowardice. Regardless of the denomination, it's about faith. Lot's have it, some don't. And that's okay. But to dedicate yourself to trying to destroy it in others is pathetic and very very sad."
# # #
"Dennett's notion that we might develop a secular form of religion, incorporating rituals similar to those of authentic religion, has no credibility whatever. Unitarianism is the most plausible candidate, but it's an abject failure at the task. There are no tenets worth speaking of, only the blandest of the bland platitudes. How can one be transported by such inanity? Insofar as one is pulled out of religious belief by thinking, how can one be pulled back into a secular religion by such vacuousness? It's sad of course that we can't replace the satisfying experience of religious transport by something secular. But it is the price exacted by thinking."
# # #

"When Dennett begins to recommend that non-believers be elevated to positions of leadership within churches, he steps away from any pretense of a "study." He is not attempting to open the church for those who doubt - he is attempting to take away the reasons for which most of us go to church in the first place. We already have an institution where non-believers come together for a pseudo-religious service and the purpose of doing good in the community. It's called the Unitarian Church, and they are a wonderful, historied organization full of community-minded people. I would direct Mr. Dennett there, but it seems his purpose in this "study" is not to find a place for non-believers who enjoy the trappings of religion, but to destroy the churches of those who have experienced and do experience doubt, yet continue to believe. No thanks. I'd rather live my life as though there is a higher purpose and a loving God, who commands us to come together to worship, to learn about Him and to do good in His name - even if I'm wrong."
The most interesting and perceptive comment, which appears to come from someone well informed on theological issues, deals directly with the issue of theological education and its impact on a serious theological student:

In his interview of Daniel Dennett, Drake Bennett raised the issue as to whether seminary education itself was a prime factor in the loss of faith among the clergy. Both Bennett and Dennett emphasized the study of biblical criticism as a factor in the undermining of religious faith. However, the study of theology itself can help to undermine religious faith too. Seminary students would, presumably, be exposed to the work of such eminent 20th century theologians as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Hans Kung, whose work wittingly or unwittingly, deconstructed traditional concepts of God. Interestingly enough, all of those theologians were strongly influenced by the work of the 19th century atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, as well as by Nietzsche and Freud.

Tillich, in this regard is most interesting. The (atheist) philosopher Sidney Hook once remarked of Tillich:

"With amazing courage Tillich boldly says that the God of the multitudes does not exist, and further, that to believe in His existence is to believe in an idol and ultimately to embrace superstition. God cannot be an entity among entities, even the highest. He is being-in-itself. In this sense Tillich's God is like the God of Spinoza and the God of Hegel. Both Spinoza and Hegel were denounced for their atheism by the theologians of the past because their God was not a Being or an Entity. Tillich, however, is one of the foremost theologians of our time."

And Tillich himself once summarized his position in the following terms:

"If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him, and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing besides others within the universe of existing things. . . Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and restate the meaning of the tremendous word God."

Given this, one had to agree with Daniel Dennett that anyone who comes out seminary still believing in God (or at least the God of traditional theism) wasn't paying attention.”
The next quote reinforces the observation that theological education plays a key role in the loss of faith but also serves as an educational resource and incubator for those seeking a way to accommodate their loss of faith with a leadership role in the religious community. My own experience confirms that. Several of my fellow students during my theological school days were exploring religion for their personal and educational interest without seriously considering becoming a minister or going into professional church work. Others were struggling with issues of faith, with several different paths ultimately pursued. Some left the church or gave up any plan to enter the ministry as a career while others shifted to a religious denomination in which they believed they could fit comfortably, one into the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and two others into the Episcopal Church, the latter for a quite interesting reason—they were able to say “the Church believes” rather than “I believe.” I think that “out” was seen as an acceptable way to deal with the questions of faith among ministers to a much greater degree than is commonly admitted.

So we turn to a current theological student for the final comment:

As a student at Harvard Divinity School, I was hardly surprised at this study. I'd hazard a guess that at least 25% of the students at HDS are atheists or spiritual non-theists. Some, like me, are pursuing the academic study of religion: why people believe, what they believe, and how religious practices and institutions impact a wider society. But quite a few are aspiring clergy who do not accept anthropomorphic deities, yet still see a place for "benign" forms of religiosity in our culture. I did find myself nodding sympathetically as I read about the role of seminaries in fostering non-belief. I was a bona fide theist and practicing pastor when I went to seminary, but by the close of my first year the force of empirical evidence compelled me to surrender my faith. My professors spoke of the necessity of "re-enchantment" or a "second naïvete" as part of spiritual formation, but I never experienced a rebirth of this sort. And, for the record, I'm glad of it.
So where does this leave us? A significant number of ministers in American Protestantism (and I think this comment is true for Protestantism generally in the English speaking world) are facing a crisis of faith that has serious implications for the vocation of ministry. Critics have argued that this is a particular problem of the more liberal theological seminaries and is not a widespread problem. I think they are mistaken, perhaps even deluded.

There is increasing evidence that the problem is much larger than is generally realized because, as Professor Dennett’s study shows and as I have discovered from contacts with many ministers facing a crisis of faith, it is a secret that cannot easily be talked about even with close friends and family. Ministers feel trapped in a vocation that is not just a job, it is a faith commitment and a vocational commitment, it has taken years of professional training, it involves the religious faith of friends and family, it is a commitment to a congregation which is itself a community.

The loss of faith is not just a desire not to do the job anymore; if that was all it involved, it would require a career change and some career counseling. For the minister it is a great deal more than that, it is an admission of personal failure in the struggle for faith, it is an acknowledgment before family, friends and congregation that one has been living a lie, it is a personal loss, almost a death of the spirit. It is a personal tragedy. But perhaps it is a necessary step in order to keep one’s integrity.


Linda LaScola said...

Thank you for your thoughtful treatment of our work. Please note that I am co-author with Professor Dennett and conducted all of the interviews with the clergy.

The full article can be found at

Linda LaScola

Arthur G Broadhurst said...

Thank you for that additional information. I have tried to contact Professor Dennett at his Tufts email address but have not had a response.

Earl Cruser said...

I just now came upon your Blog in searching out "Religious humanism." I find it well-written and based on some serious and informed thought. I see no entries since April, 2010 and hope that your are still writing. I am a former Presbyterian minister, now a "non-theist" as you are and find much of what you write compatible and enlightening. My story parallels those cases studied by Dr. Dennet. I saw a video of him lecturing about his study. Does this record my email? It is: if you care to correspond. --Earl C.

Dirk Haupt said...

This makes me wonder what the next phase might be for Western secularization. From my limited knowledge on the matter it at least appears to me that in some European countries (I'm thinking of Norway specifically mind you) secularization seems to have found a stable purpose for religion in the context of the wider community and country. Although the actual belief isn't as important as say the US, it doesn't matter. Churches are still a part of the country's identity and heritage. Religion still has a role to play as a means of creating a space for unifying rituals and symbols, a space that provides a cognitive sense of sacredness and self-transcendence, a space dedicated to importance of virtues and wisdom.

(I'm a Durkheimian in case you haven't noticed)

How will the US make such a transition (one from belief to religion as a social and human need)? My concern is that faith and its loss is something that is rarely openly discussed about. Given that so many Americans vigorously defend America as a Christian nation I feel that at some stage or another something of a cognitive void will enshroud the US. I envision cultural degeneracy at the loss of such a strong driven sense of purpose: The implications of which should have long-term affects on everything from communities to the global economy. Belief... belief is power. If the threads unweave without an accepted replacement then I see a great crisis on our hands.

I'm thinking we may one day have counselors throughout the country trained to talk to people who have lost faith. I'm thinking one day saying "I'm religious and that's just the way I am" will carry the same stigma in some circles as saying "I'm a homosexual and that's just the way I am."

Please do not see these musings as doomsday prophecies or that I think there is some measure of "progress" behind secularization and that I'm all for the end goal. I merely think change is inevitable, and given the state of religion in the US given this article, I think it is wise not to discard the loss of faith on a national scale as something we can just "get over."

It was tremendously hard enough for me alone.

On the other hand, although I'm concerned, in practice I think the best thing to do is to simply ride out the storm than make it some national issue. It's a personal journey for each of us. Let's leave it at that.